In a nondescript garage on a dead-end street in an industrial neighborhood south of Los Angeles, a half-dozen motorheads gaze in reverence at the time-warped creature that sits before them, a visitor from a distant era when men were men and horsepower was the ultimate in masculine cool. "This thing," says Fast Ed the upholstery guy, "is going to be a monster." The man standing next to him, beer in hand, nods idly, but his mind is elsewhere. He's here for only a few days, and there's much to be done. The Grand National Roadster Show at the Fairplex in Pomona is less than three months away. The 502-horsepower big-block Chevy engine has yet to be installed, and the avocado-colored bull leather must still be stitched into the interior. Right now, Matthew Fox's attention is riveted on the automotive artisan intently laying pin-striped tape in flowing flame shapes onto the bulbous ebony flanks of a sweetly sinister 1950 Mercury.

"They're going to be ghost flames, pearl-green—you'll hardly see them," Fox says. "If you put a flame job on it that's not right, it'll fuck everything up."

In a black blazer, white T-shirt, and black jeans, with touches of gray flecking the tops of his sideburns, he's absurdly handsome in person, way too modelesque for the surroundings. But he's supremely at ease amid the litter of the shop, the oil and machinery and half-restored carcasses of Studebakers and Porsches. On this day, his garage band of brothers seems to know him only as one of its own: a guy with the good taste—and sufficient funds—to restore a true Detroit classic.

"Lines-wise, it's one of the coolest cars ever made," Fox says. "It's just like James Dean's car in Rebel Without a Cause. And we've been so careful not to fuck it up. We've let the car tell us what it needed."

Don't let that last bit of mysticism confuse you. Entering the fifth—and penultimate—season of Lost, the TV Fox (a.k.a. Dr. Jack Shephard) has been revealed in flash-forwards to be one severely unstable, potentially suicidal drug addict, whereas Fox the man is a middle-aged family guy in his 16th year of marriage, with two children and hobbies that seem to belong in back issues of Boys' Life. "I've always been into cars," he says, sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck in the garage's darkening parking lot. "Cars are part of our genetic makeup. It's unavoidable. My little boy, he's 7, he plays with Matchbox cars, does the sound effects and everything. He dressed up as Racer X for Halloween. One of the highlights of my life."

In short, the man is no rebel. James Dean, an ephemeral phenomenon, sent his cinematic 1949 Mercury, like his life, speeding over a cliff. Fox is at the beginning of a film career he hopes to build carefully, brick by brick—and he plans to get plenty of mileage out of his Merc. After a year on the show circuit, it will sit in the garage of the house he's building—in central Oregon, a suitably anonymous slice of American outback for a man who sounds sincere when he admits, almost sheepishly, that he doesn't much welcome all the attention coming his way.